Happy today to review DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), which is now officially one of my top post-apocalyptic movies.
In the prequel, the poorly titled RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (the titling here makes you want to watch the two films in reverse), an experimental drug makes apes intelligent, including the special ape named Caesar. I found the film so-so as an origin story. I wasn’t terribly excited about the sequel.
The sequel rocks, however. Seriously.
In DAWN, a virus carried by the apes, simian flu, infects humanity and quickly becomes a pandemic that kills almost everyone it infects.
Years later, in the Redwoods, the apes, still led by Caesar, live in a thriving tribal society. Then one day, they chance upon a group of human survivors. The apes trail them back to their community living in the ruins of San Francisco and warn them to stay away. But the humans can’t do that–they need to go up into the forest to get the hydro plant working again and get the lights back on.
These two distrustful communities seem destined for war, but one man wins Caesar’s trust and achieves a fragile peace.
Of course, this peace is not meant to last. There are humans who see the apes as dumb animals, and many who blame them for the disease that almost wiped out humanity. And there are apes who remember being the subject of horrifying lab experiments, and hate the humans.
Several things made this film brilliant in my view. First, the apes are perfectly rendered and, with just a little suspension of disbelief, come across as real flesh and blood people, in particular Caesar, his son and his lieutenant, Koba. I cared as much about what happened to the apes as I did the humans. Similarly, the ruins of San Francisco, overgrown with foliage, are awesomely rendered to set the scene.
Second, the story is simple but not dumbed down. Not much is contrived here. The two groups have genuine conflict, and the stakes are clear and extremely high for each. As the viewer, you’re rooting for our heroes to figure it out and find peace. For those looking for a deeper meaning, one could see this as a colonization story where two cultures, one technologically advanced and the other primitive, clash, but thankfully, there’s no moralizing about it.
Third, the characters are sympathetic, even the minor ones, and behave in a realistic way. Our heroes aren’t action figures, they come across as real people with clear motivations. Caesar shines as a remarkable character. Even the slightly villainous leader of the humans, played by Gary Oldman, is a sympathetic character, haunted by the loss of his family and willing to do whatever it takes to save what’s left of humanity and civilization. And even the thoroughly villainous Koba is sympathetic. He was tortured in a lab; he has a strong motive to be the bad guy.
This is what a good post-apocalyptic film looks like, in my view. Convincing effects, strong characters, realistic conflict, great action, awesome scenery and a simple story well told.